KJ Apa: “My early twenties were a huge learning curve”

As he drops his confessional debut album, the 'Riverdale' star lets loose on fame, fretwork and fatherhood

Keneti James ‘KJ’ Apa became a father less than a month ago but seems to be taking it in his stride. Since he and girlfriend Clara Berry, a successful model, welcomed their son Sasha Vai Keneti Apa on September 23, the Riverdale star says he has even gained a certain clarity.

“Before you have a child of your own, you have all these voices telling you what it’s going to be like and how your life is going to change,” the 24-year-old actor-singer says on Zoom from his home in Vancouver, where Riverdale is filmed. Though it’s been seven years since Apa left New Zealand, where he was born and raised, he has kept his distinctive Kiwi accent. “And definitely I was scared,” he continues. “I don’t think you’re normal if you don’t have a little bit of fear going into such a huge, monumental time in your life. But as soon as I saw him and I saw [Clara] do what she did, everything kind of fell into place. All my questions were answered.”

Even the sleep deprivation that can plague new parents isn’t a problem. Apa is used to it after five years of filming Riverdale, the dark and stylish teen series featuring Archie Comics characters that often pays homage to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. As Archie Andrews, Riverdale‘s intense and impulsive protagonist, Apa is generally central to the fast-moving major storylines.

KJ Apa
CREDIT: Mathew Jacinto-Uhrik

“This show has seriously shaped me into a person that is fine with no sleep,” he says with a laugh. “We’re constantly up all night on this job. No one on this show gets any sleep, so that part for me is easy.” At the time of the interview, Apa’s girlfriend and son are in LA with his mother, Tessa, but due to join him in a few days once “the young fella” has his passport. Apa’s father Tupa’i, a chief in his native Samoa, is already in Vancouver and appears to be pottering about in the background in a thoroughly dad-ish way. At one point, Apa turns round to say something to him, but with his microphone muted. If he is asking his father to be quiet, he’s too polite to do it in front of us.

Apa’s new album ‘Clocks’, a folky collection that shows off his flair for breezy affairs and seriously impressive guitar skills, is also a family affair. He duets with Berry on the languidly romantic ballad ‘Beautiful Things’ and co-wrote lyrics with his mother. “She’s not very musical – the musical side [of me] comes fully from my dad,” Apa says. “But from this experience I learned that she knows how to write in a musical sense where she understands how syllables fit into certain bars. I would send over some words to her and she could replicate the structure of the first verse [I had written] in the second verse. With a lot of people I’ve written with in the past, this hasn’t happened as perfectly, so it was just very easy for us to collaborate.”

​​Though songwriting has inevitably played second fiddle to Riverdale for the past half decade, Apa is no musical newbie. He first picked up the guitar after hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ when he was 11 and credits pops with shaping his taste by playing everything from Steely Dan to Bobby Brown at home. On YouTube, you can watch footage of Apa, just 14 at the time, busking on the streets of Auckland: he’s already a great guitarist. Though playing Archie Andrews now takes up 10 months of his year, Apa finds time to make music with his band The Rumble Fish, who dropped an emotive indie bop called ‘Cabaret’ last year. He also gets to sing and play on the show: his wistful rendition of Green Day‘s ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’’ became a fan favourite in February. Back in season one, he and castmates Camila Mendes and Lili Reinhart duetted on an affecting cover of Tears For Fears’ ‘Mad World’.

“Music has been my way to express myself [while shooting ‘Riverdale’]”

Apa says he could “absolutely” pitch a song for Archie to cover on Riverdale to showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, but stresses that making ‘Clocks’ allowed him a different level of creativity. “Music has very much been my way to express myself here in Vancouver, while I’ve been kind of stuck on a show, where as much as I am grateful for it, it’s just different,” he says. “When you’re on a set and you’re playing a character for so long, there’s a lot of rules and guidelines and directions that you have to follow that you don’t necessarily get a lot of say in. But music has always been, you know, the one thing that I have full control over.”

Back in February Apa gave an interview to Demi Moore, his co-star in the COVID-themed movie Songbird, where he said he “felt so free” on the film “coming from a show where I feel like I’m in jail a lot of the time”. Riverdale‘s famously loyal fans were understandably disappointed and Apa says he phoned Aguirre-Sacasa to reassure him that the comment didn’t represent his true feelings. “That’s not really how I see it,” he says today. “I can understand why the fans are mad because they want to be watching a show where the actors playing those characters are invested in the work. And we are all so invested in the work, because otherwise why would we be on the show? We all love the show and the characters we’re playing.”

As Apa continues, it’s clear that he’s choosing his words carefully, but also that he wants to explain where his head was at when he made the comment. “The whole jail statement,” he says, “is like what I was talking to you about before. We’re on a huge machine of a show – with a huge global reach and a huge fanbase – and it’s a show where we don’t get to… our voices aren’t heard as much as other creative people who are involved. You know, like our showrunners and writers. As actors, we very much have a job to do, and that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s enjoyable and we’re grateful and that we love to do it. It’s just… not like being involved in other projects where maybe we have more of a voice in the creativity.”

KJ Apa
KJ Apa’s debut solo album ‘Clocks’ is out now

Apa was barely 18 when he landed Riverdale. He had recently moved to LA from New Zealand, where he was already well-known thanks to an 18-month stint on the primetime soap Shortland Street. Apa won acclaim for his portrayal of Kane Jenkins, a teenager who attempts to take his own life while suffering from depression, and even got to shoot a slightly stilted scene with A-list guest star Ed Sheeran. Music was shadowing his acting career from the start.

He says relocating to LA after Shortland Street was “epic”, partly because he was so “bright-eyed and bushy tailed” that he couldn’t believe he could order takeout at 11pm. Refreshingly, he also admits that he felt no creeping self-doubt either before or after being cast as Archie Andrews. “I had dropped out of high school and decided I wanted to come to LA to be an actor. And I don’t know what it was, but I had a lot of confidence,” he recalls. “It was probably a mix between my higher power and just, you know, having faith in myself. I didn’t know how well the show was going to do, but when I came to LA I knew I was going to work. There was just something in the back of my mind that felt very good about it.”

Apa lights up with excitement as he talks about his career break, but during his Demi Moore interview he said that Riverdale success came with “a lot of baggage”. What did he mean by this?

“I was running myself thin, doing things I shouldn’t have been doing”

“I think everyone’s idea of that depends on where they are in their lives,” he says after a pause. “For me, growing up into my twenties and figuring out what kind of man I was – those were changing years. I think going from 18 to 25 are very important years for anyone, but I was also going through the whole fame thing. I was living by myself, far from family, far from the culture I know, far from my Samoan side, and then hitting this huge show that kind of exploits every part of you. That was difficult for sure.”

Apa says that for a time, he was “running myself thin, doing things I shouldn’t have been doing” and felt lonely because he didn’t surround himself with the right people. “I think every guy in his early twenties is in a vulnerable position because he’s trying to find out who he is,” he says. “And I just happened to be on a hit TV show at that point, so I was vulnerable to a lot of different influences, whether that’s substances or people with bad intentions or getting involved in situations that I shouldn’t have been in. But that whole thing was a huge learning curve. Without those experiences, I wouldn’t have learned anything and I’d still be doing stupid shit.”

KJ Apa
CREDIT: Grayson Vaughan

After what sounds like an early twenties wobble, Apa says he’s on an even keel now. He credits his grounded New Zealand upbringing and playing rugby as a teenager with “shaping the man that I am today”. But interestingly, while Apa was learning “morals and teamwork” on the rugby pitch, he was also exploring his feminine side with an alter ego named Fifi. He introduced her to the wider world in July 2020 with the TikTok account @fifiisqueen, which features videos of Apa-as-Fifi dancing, gyrating and lip-syncing without self-consciousness. It’s a lot of fun, and a long way from high school jock Archie Andrews. “No one’s asked me about Fifi before, but she’s been living inside of me for a long time,” Apa says. “I have quite literally known and messed with this character since I was eight, nine, ten years old. She allows me to express the feminine side of myself through moving and my physicality. My sisters would dress me up in drag as a kid – I’d put on lipstick and wear wigs and stuff – and I used to love exploring that part [of myself]. It was epic.”

So far, Fifi hasn’t popped up on TikTok too often, and she always looks pretty much exactly like Apa – namely, male-presenting. But somewhere down the line, he says we’ll “definitely” see her wearing makeup and a wig. “I love watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and I’ve told my agents I want to be on that show,” he adds. “But at the same time, RuPaul’s Drag Race and the characters on that show, they’re the real deal, they’re the most authentic. I don’t think I’d be allowed on that show because I’m not the real deal. But why did I share Fifi with the world? Because it’s not something that I feel like I need to hide. I am proud of Fifi. I really enjoy that [side of myself].” Being able to express himself authentically is clearly very important to Apa, and Fifi, like music, is an outlet for his creativity.

“Fifi allows me to express the feminine side of myself”

Sadly, we won’t be seeing Fifi on Riverdale just yet – “I should ask Roberto, though!” Apa says – but we will see new layers to Archie when season six premieres in mid-November. “The biggest change for me is that he’s not as indecisive,” Apa says. “One of his biggest character defects in the first few seasons was that he couldn’t make his mind up about things: football, music, [his sometime girlfriends] Betty and Veronica. But now, we very much see a man who knows what he wants.” And as Archie has grown in confidence, so too has Apa. “I think Archie has taught me that I can, you know, probably work on being a little more decisive in my own life,” he admits.

Given that growing up has been a recurring theme through this interview, the final question seems obvious: has KJ Apa figured out the kind of man he wants to be, especially now he’s a father? “Basically, I just want my side of the road to be clean,” he says. “What I mean by that is having a clean conscience and knowing that I’ve done the right thing. Knowing that I’ve said the right thing to someone and knowing that I’m not leading someone on in any kind of way. What gives me peace in my life is knowing that I can wake up every morning with a pretty clean slate.”

KJ Apa’s debut solo album ‘Clocks’ is out now